The temple of memory
Abbey Theatre screens “Unknown White Male”

by Judith Reynolds

Doug Bruce was 35 when he woke up on a subway to Coney Island and didn’t know who he was. Without identification, no one could help him. Only a shred of pink paper with a name on it led to someone who could.

“Unknown White Male” is a documentary made by one of Bruce’s friends, Rupert Murray. And it’s a nightmare that will give you pause. The director has patched together a story of sudden memory loss, the search for medical or psychiatric answers, and the slow reconstruction of a life. At the beginning, a reenactment dramatizes the onset but not the triggering incident. That remains unknown, one of many unknowns.

A black-and-white prologue spins out a kaleidoscope of images to underscore the mystery of the human brain and set the stage for questioning identity. Then director and subject recreate the onset of difficulties. With a simple calendar device, the director dates everything from the brain insult. Six days out, a hospital film shows a frightened man desperate to find anyone who knows him. The scrap of paper leads to a former girlfriend and her mother, but no matter how many friends or colleagues are found, Bruce recognizes no one.

Director Murray relies on his own film footage and, astonishingly, his subject’s own video work. In a few dazzling photo-montages, Murray assembles X-ray technology and found images to suggest Bruce’s episodic rediscovery of a magical world full of snowflakes and sunlight, waves and fireworks.


If the director had not sought out experts to explain memory theory, the film would collapse into fantasy. Until we learn that people can lose episodic memory and still function, Bruce’s dilemma conjures some skepticism. Murray visits enough medical people who are bewildered by Bruce’s rare amnesia that the subject’s plight becomes believable.

But there is another question: why does Bruce film some of his own encounters? That’s answered when we learn he took up photography before the incident. British born, Bruce had come to America and conquered the stock market well enough to follow his passion for film. After the incident, he hadn’t lost his skills and used them in his own rehabilitation. It computes – more or less.

It is Bruce who arranges and films an awkward meeting with his family. As a counterbalance, the director goes back later for his own interviews about the strange interlude. Murray does that on other occasions, too. For example, he films an odd reunion with Bruce’s boyhood buddies and their reflective commentary at a later date.

Old films of the lads reveal a different Bruce, who now seems dour and guarded. Most disturbingly, he frankly admits to people that not only does he not know them, there is no emotional connection. That’s devastating to many and puzzling to Bruce.

Ironically, one physical explanation for his brain failure resurfaces in a second incident. The effect is to make the stability of the brain and identity even more precarious. Bruce goes on with his life with some unexpected turns. And he lives with the possibility of another sudden incident or, perhaps, full recovery. “Unknown” is the operative word in the title, and it will give you plenty to talk about. •